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Yes on I-517: It will guarantee votes on initiatives

Sen. Ann Rivers

Last year, Washington’s initiative process celebrated its 100-year anniversary. During that time, people from across the political spectrum have presented their reform ideas to the voters. Each of those initiatives spurred a robust debate and healthy citizen involvement. Voters had the opportunity to learn more about public policy and discuss and debate important issues with friends and family.

I support Initiative 517 because I believe in the citizens’ right to have a voice in their government. I-517’s primary policy change is guaranteeing you the right to vote on initiatives that qualify for the ballot with adequate signatures.

In a unanimous ruling, the Washington State Supreme Court in 2005 rejected an effort by special interest groups to stop the people from voting on a qualified initiative. Their reason: “Because ballot measures are often used to express popular will and to send a message to elected representatives, pre-election review unduly infringes on free speech.”

Despite this clear ruling by the Supreme Court, dozens of citizen-sponsored initiatives — liberal and conservative — have been blocked from a public vote even though local citizens followed all the rules.

During this year’s session, I sponsored a bill in the Legislature to guarantee a vote on qualified initiatives. At a hearing on my bill, I heard citizen after citizen tell horror stories of having their initiatives blocked, preventing the people from exercising their right to vote. It was heartbreaking.

Citizens from across Washington testified. Sponsors of local initiatives on red-light ticketing cameras from Bellingham, Wenatchee, Redmond, Longview and Monroe talked about how they were individually sued by the out-of-state red-light camera companies to prevent the vote. A library initiative in Renton was initially blocked from a vote. A Bellingham initiative to lower the amount of mercury in the water supply qualified but was kicked off the ballot.  Another Bellingham initiative to limit coal trains turned in a record number of voter signatures but the city and Burlington Northern teamed up and blocked the vote. The same thing happened to a “Community Bill of Rights” Initiative in Spokane.

Another Spokane initiative that prohibited corporate political contributions also had enough signatures to qualify, but it, too, was booted off the ballot.  A Vancouver initiative concerning the Columbia River Bridge that qualified for a vote was kept off the ballot by the city council. The sponsors of an initiative to shrink the size of the King County Council were individually sued by the county, forcing them to incur $250,000 in legal costs. 

All these citizens followed all the rules and qualified their initiatives but were nonetheless individually sued and had their measures blocked from a vote. Over and over again, voters were prevented from having their say. 

Yet even with such compelling public testimony, very few of my colleagues supported my bill. The Legislature is never going to protect the initiative process. 

That’s why I-517 is so important. With I-517, if the initiative qualifies, then the voters decide. I strongly support that.

I-517 also gives everyone greater access to the initiative process. Since 1912, the number of signatures required to qualify for the ballot has skyrocketed almost tenfold, while the time to manually collect signatures has remained the same at six months. Oregon allows two years; Idaho allows a year and a half.  I-517 simply matches the national average, which is one year to collect signatures. More time means grassroots groups without big money can access the initiative process too.

I-517 does one other thing that’s really important: It stops initiative opponents from bullying people who want to sign an initiative petition. Bullying — on sidewalks, walkways, and other public places — is becoming far too common and I-517 puts a stop to it. I-517 sets penalties for interfering with or retaliating against petition-signers. I-517 makes it safe for you to exercise your right to participate and vote.  

But what really moved me about I-517 — what convinced me to support it and speak out for it — is its guarantee that the people get to vote on qualified initiatives. Whether the initiative is liberal or conservative is not the issue. What matters is this: Did the citizens follow the rules and collect the required number of voter signatures in the required timeframe? If the answer to that question is yes, then I-517 guarantees the people’s right to vote. That’s how it works with state initiatives and I-517 simply applies that same protection to local initiatives.

With I-517’s protections, future generations will have the chance to have their voices heard at the state and local level on issues they care about, whether liberal or conservative. 

Please vote yes on Initiative 517.

Editor's note: Repeated invitations have been made to No on I-517 to submit an oped on the subject. We have not received one.

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